Texas failed to make special education services available to all students with disabilities who needed it, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Education.
After a monitoring period that included listening sessions with parents across the state, the department has concluded the Texas Education Agency failed to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The state agency was monitored after reports revealed a big decline in the number of Texas children with disabilities eligible for special education services.
Thursday’s report lists specific areas in which federal officials say the TEA failed to comply with federal law:
- TEA failed to make sure all children with disabilities in Texas in need of special education and related services were “identified, located and evaluated, regardless of the severity of their disability.”
- TEA failed to make sure a free appropriate public education (FAPE) was made available to all Texas children with disabilities between ages 3 and 21.
- TEA failed to failed to ensure that all independent school districts throughout Texas properly implemented the IDEA’s child find and FAPE requirements.
Also on Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, directing him to take "immediate steps" to prepare an initial plan within the next seven days to reform special education in the state.
In a statement, Morath says he shares the governor's urgency and that the action plan Abbott's requesting "will outline the specific steps TEA will take to address all the identified issues."
Attorney Kym Rogers is with the nonprofit Disability Rights Texas. She was pleased with Thursday’s news.
“I think this is a great day,” she told KERA. “I think that the children with disabilities in the state of Texas who have been ignored by TEA and not gotten the services they need, they've been somewhat validated. It's no surprise. We know that that's been occurring. But now the federal agency, the Department of Education, has told us and confirmed that TEA took steps that resulted in children not being identified for special education and failed to monitor school districts appropriately.”
The TEA enacted a policy in 2004 to limit special education services to no more than 8.5 percent of students. The Houston Chronicle reported in September 2016 that the state’s arbitrary enrollment target had likely denied “tens of thousands” of kids special education services to cut costs.
Since the 8.5 percent cap went into effect, the statewide enrollment rate had fallen from around 13 percent, near the nationwide average, to the lowest percentage in the country.
“Data from TEA demonstrates the number of children identified as children with disabilities under IDEA declined from the 2003-2004 to 2016-2017 school years by 32,000 students, while total enrollment in Texas schools grew by more than one million students,” according to the education department.
The agency removed the policy; since then enrollment has surged. More than 477,000 students received special education services in the 2016-17 school year, the Chronicle reported in November. That’s an increase of about 14,000 students from the previous school year.
Abbott signed two state laws last legislative session related to these issues. Senate Bill 160 prohibits the use of a performance indicator based on the number or percentage of children who receive special education services. Senate Bill 1153 requires each school district to notify parents if their child receives assistance through the use of intervention strategies.
Since 1975, Congress has required public schools in the United States to provide specialized education services to all eligible children with any type of disability. Texas is the only state that has ever set a target for special education enrollment.
TEA has denied allegations that it capped services for students. Officials have said it wasn't a cap, but rather a benchmark that would indicate school districts' performance.
The Associated Press and KERA's Bill Zeeble contributed to this report.